The Power of Collective Memory

By Kathryn Berla
Author of The House at 758

 

Sitting by the window of a train, fields of yellow flowers blur past me. Houses whose occupants I’ll never know but whose lives I imagine for the brief few seconds before my view is transformed once again. A traveler across continents, like a traveler through life, accepts what she can from her journey before it’s whisked out of her sight for all time.

On this particular journey, like others before it, I find myself occasionally tracking my parents’ own journeys—some of them before I was born, some when I was still under their care. Traveling with my parents to places where they once lived and worked, I was preoccupied with the business of being young and oblivious to the transient nature of life. But it was transience that made travel so exciting for me. New experiences. New faces. New foods and smells. New, new, new. The young aren’t supposed to look back. The past should be difficult for them to imagine and perhaps not all that interesting. Possibly, it’s even genetically programmed in the human species to keep us moving forward, denying us this particular curiosity until a few wrinkles frame our faces. And so, at the time, I never thought to ask my parents any of a myriad of questions whose answers now seem so vitally important. I viewed their memories as something only of interest to them, but now I know their memories were mine as well. And many of my memories began as theirs, repeated to me until I could claim them as my own. As the wonderful Hungarian author, Magda Szabo, said in her novel, Katalin Street, “. . . everything eventually comes ’round again, the living experience and the old memory sitting neatly side by side.”

So now I journey to get answers to the questions I never asked. My husband is my traveling companion, seeking his own answers to his past. Did we squander our opportunity to unveil the mysteries of our personal histories or are the answers one must work to get sweeter for the effort, even if our imaginations must sometimes fill in the blanks?

In a natural society, all generations live together sharing the best of what each has to offer, whether it’s responsibility, wisdom, history, or merely the joyfulness and lightness of being that the very young have to offer. But our modern society isn’t a natural society so we have to purposefully recreate the bridges between generations that once came so easily. Maybe we’ve asked questions of our parents and grandparents, and maybe some of those questions have intentionally gone unanswered. My father-in-law didn’t like to talk about the Holocaust and the unholy terror it unleashed upon his world, but pressed to do so, he would open up. Slowly and with obvious pain. Perhaps his own father kept painful memories neatly contained and far away from his children as well.

Not every untold memory is as grotesque as that. My own questions may be mundane and yet I long to know. What were my mother’s thoughts the day she arrived in a strange city for her first job, on her own and far from home? Were there many lonesome nights before she made new friends? Did she sometimes cry from homesickness or was she simply ecstatic to be on her own? After giving birth to her first child, was she struck by the awesome nature of the responsibility that was about to rock her world?

The House at 758 and Going Places (releasing in March 2018) are both stories that deal with the unlikely and accidental coming-together of generations. In both stories, the main character is forever changed by a cross-generational relationship that begins as a burden and ultimately results in one of life’s most precious gifts. It’s my fondest wish that readers will be inspired to ask the questions of parents, grandparents, or even the elderly widow next door. And better yet, that one day the answers they get might shine a light on their own path forward.
 

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